This conference is the social event of the year for farmers and foodies in both the Carolinas. A couple thousand people gathered in Durham to talk about topics ranging from federal policy to commercial fruit production to making your own mead.
The workshops were as informative as they were diverse. Here are some interesting tidbits I picked up:
- Artichokes are a perennial plant developed in Italy.
- Chicken eggs are naturally covered in an antibacterial coating right before the hen lays the egg.
- The basic tenets of biodynamics include observation of cosmic rhythms and ritual substances.
Although I enjoyed all the workshops I attended, I’m most excited by what I learned in the session on winter growing in high tunnels. A high tunnel is another term for hoop house, or essentially a greenhouse set over beds in a field.
The speaker at this session, Paul Wiediger from Au Naturel Farm in Kentucky, uses his 5 unheated high tunnels to grow greens, root vegetables, and jumpstart warm season crops.
Through the infamous (but highly useful for farming) greenhouse effect, passive solar energy heats the high tunnel enough to grow throughout the winter season. Even with daytime temperatures in the teens, Farmer Wiediger said that temperatures in the high tunnel will reach into the 70’s and 80’s on sunny days.
High tunnels provide minimal protection to the crops at night; according to Farmer Wiediger, his crops will occasionally freeze. But once the sun comes up, even delicate lettuce performs a miracle recovery.
Winter growing using high tunnels isn’t a new idea. Eliot Coleman is known as “one of the granddaddies of can-do, intensive organic farming” for his ability to grow crops year round at his farm—in Maine. Coleman runs Four Season Farm, and has written several books that extol the virtues of hoop house growing and promise that anyone can grow year round. He has done wonders to popularize the idea that no matter your climate, you CAN grow food.
So why am I so excited about high tunnel growing? Because the DCF faces a fundamental problem: the season in which we’re most productive (summer) is the season in which there is the least demand at dining halls.
High tunnels would allow us to shift the bulk of our growing to the fall and winter. With careful planning and timing, we could have new potatoes in November (typically harvested in the spring), and tomatoes as early as April. We could provide lettuce, kale, chard, radishes, turnips, beets—the list goes on—throughout the coldest winter months.
If Mr. Coleman’s farm can be productive year-round in Maine, then so can the DCF in North Carolina. We’ve got our first high tunnel up and running with chard, broccoli, raab, kale, spinach, arugula, and lettuces.
If all goes well, we’ll build more high tunnels and be able to produce even more food in the off-seasons. And that’s how we’ll succeed at winter growing with just a high tunnel and a plan.